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RIGHTS-EUROPE: Torture Flights Could Land Again

David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Sep 27 2007 (IPS) - Seven months after a major investigation spelt out Europe’s involvement in a murky U.S. torture and kidnapping programme, the EU’s governments have claimed they are powerless to prevent such human rights abuses in the future.

In February, an inquiry committee in the European Parliament concluded that at least 1,245 flights operated by the Central Intelligence Agency flew into European airspace or stopped at the continent’s airports between the end of 2001 and the end of 2005.

As well as citing evidence that the aircraft were used to transport torture victims, the report urged that all military or police overflights in Europe should only be granted clearance in return for assurances on the respect of human rights.

But Portugal, the current holder of the EU’s presidency, claimed Sep. 26 that the Union has no legal power to monitor the CIA in that way.

Manuel Lobo Antunes, Portugal’s Europe minister, said there had “not been any lack of commitment” to address the surrounding issues on the part of EU governments. Yet he failed to acknowledge that the evidence unearthed in investigations has been convincing. “We shouldn’t confuse facts with allegations,” he said.

Human rights activists were angered by the minister’s comments, made while addressing members of the European Parliament (MEPs).

Campaigners point out that U.S. President George W. Bush acknowledged in September last year that a number of suspected terrorists had been secretly held and interrogated outside U.S. territory as part of his so-called war on terrorism.

In June this year, the 47-country Council of Europe published the findings of a separate investigation into the CIA flights and detention issue. Swiss Senator Dick Marty, who led that investigation, said he had evidence to prove the CIA ran secret prisons in Poland and Romania, also members of the 27-country European Union, between 2003 and 2005.

Natacha Kazatchkine from Amnesty International from Amnesty International said that EU governments collectively have “done nothing to follow up” investigations by the European Parliament and Council of Europe.

“There is a serious accountability gap,” she told IPS. “The policy is to deny what happened by staying silent and trying to undermine evidence. This is despite how Bush himself declared to the world that this had happened.”

The individual cases mentioned in the Parliament’s findings included those of Abu Omar, an Egyptian cleric who had been granted asylum in Italy. He was abducted in Milan in 2003, transferred to Germany and then to Egypt, where he was held incommunicado and severely beaten.

Claudio Fava, the Italian Socialist MEP who drafted a report for the Parliament’s investigation, said that his paper contained 48 recommendations. “I need to know if even one of these recommendations has been followed up (by EU governments),” he said.

Fava’s report also called for compensation to be paid to those who had been innocent victims of CIA abductions in Europe.

In January, Canada issued a formal apology to one of its nationals Maher Arar and agreed to pay him 9 million dollars. Arar had been falsely accused of involvement in terrorism, and had been captured by a U.S. agent while changing a plane in New York. He was held for 10 months in a Syrian dungeon, where he was tortured.

No similar efforts of compensation have been made by any European governments.

Fava’s report maintained, too, that EU states knew of secret CIA flights going through their airspace and of how the U.S. was holding prisoners in secret centres on European soil. It accused Austria, Italy, Portugal, Poland and Britain of failing to cooperate with the investigation.

Franco Frattini, the European commissioner for justice, said that he wrote to the Polish and Romanian authorities in July, arguing that they had an obligation to have an in-depth inquiry into the secret detentions issue. Neither government has yet replied.

But Dutch Liberal MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld argued that those two countries should not be singled out “as sacrificial lambs”. She complained that EU governments have “yet to accept collective responsibility.”

Her British colleague Sarah Ludford lamented that only 12 EU countries have so far signed the United Nations Convention on Enforced Disappearances. It is telling, she added, that Britain, Germany, Spain, Portugal and Romania are among the “absentees”.

Proinsias de Rossa, an MEP for Dublin, noted that 147 CIA-operated flights had landed in Ireland, yet there has been no inquiry conducted by his country’s parliament.

Last weekend Germany announced that it has dropped a request for the U.S. to extradite 13 CIA agents suspected of abducting Khaled al-Masri. A German national, he was abducted in Macedonia and then detained in Afghanistan.

A court in Munich had issued arrest warrants for the CIA agents in January.

German MEP Sylia-Yvonne Kaufmann said that the Berlin government has “bowed down to the U.S. authorities” in this case.

“There has been an unlimited breach of human rights,” she added. “Illegal detention has been carried out. And EU member states have looked the other way when abductions were carried out on their territories.”

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